During the final reel of Akira Kurosawa’s masterwork Rashomon, which I was screening for a small audience at a local library, I stood in the back watching the clumsy battle without honor, and I became aware of pain, pressure, in both my hands. I realized that I’d been clenching my fists in my pockets. What was affecting me? The suspense? No, I’d seen the film before and knew how it ended. The excitement of the fighting? No, it’s ineptly choreographed. Kurosawa had gone beyond a base, nervous-system response and gotten me tensed up with philosophy. The movie says that people are bottomless pits of frailty and will try to cloak it with all manners of deception and social programming — but that’s not all it says.
As most of the movie-buff world knows, Rashomon is an inquiry into truth, using four different, contradictory accounts of the same event — the rape of a woman (screeching, weeping Machiko Kyo) and the subsequent death of her samurai husband (stoic Masayuki Mori), possibly at the hands of a wildly boastful bandit (Toshiro Mifune, bellowing mad laughter to the gray heavens). A woodcutter (saturnine Takashi Shimura) adds his account to the mix, relating it first to the authorities and later to a couple of men — a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a nihilistic commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) who has a dim view of humanity. While rain soaks the barren landscape outside, the woodcutter and his new acquaintances chew over the “horrible” tale(s).
Released in 1950 and set in 11th-century Japan, Rashomon exists inside casual, contemptuous misogyny but then critiques it from within. For most of the movie, we’re led to believe that the woman is indeed “weak” (as the bandit says), that her submission to her attacker brings shame upon her and her husband. Most of the conflicting accounts, then, bow to certain expectations society has of the teller. The bandit insists that he had an honorable and skilled fight with the samurai, who held his own for a while, but, in the end, of course, the bandit prevailed. The woman avoids all responsibility for the events — the dagger she held mysteriously ended up in her husband’s chest after she passed out. The samurai, speaking through a medium (a savagely spooky sequence), casts the woman in a shameful light, to which he could only respond by taking his own life. Finally the woodcutter, who’d previously only volunteered the information that he’d happened across the samurai’s body in the woods, unveils his own version, which feels definitive, but we’re still not sure.
Kurosawa keeps things tight and intimate — much of it is essentially a filmed play — but keeps us off-balance with the pacing, which tends towards the glacial in any scene involving the woodcutter (whose initial walk in the woods seems to go on for minutes on end) but picks up and gathers tension when we flash back to the murderous dishonor played out amid the trees. Weather is also used ironically — the violent events unfold in harsh sunlight, while the post-mortem groping for truth happens against a backdrop of tears from heaven. Remember the “inept” fight choreography I mentioned before? The bandit’s version of events includes a smooth, precise duel between him and the samurai, with many clever, almost balletic touches. Kurosawa must’ve had fun staging it. The later fight is closer to grubby reality. It’s brilliantly and intentionally ineptly choreographed — there’s no honor in it, no saving face, nothing but half-hearted brutality between men who don’t actually have anything against each other. In Japan, we may not be surprised to learn, Rashomon was not terribly well received at first. It does nothing less than demolishing everything its characters — and some of its audience — believed in.
Kurosawa strips away illusion, like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, but he’s not small-souled enough to leave us with nothing. Despite the commoner’s sneering words — everyone’s out for himself, nobody is good — we see that goodness is indeed possible, and therefore hope for truth. Yes, it involves a crying, abandoned baby, but it’s not there to tug at your heartstrings — it’s one more bit of evidence that appearances can be deceiving and assumptions are a fool’s game. Rashomon is a different kind of masterpiece from Kurosawa’s burly epic The Seven Samurai or his lovely, eligiac Ikiru; it’s rather shrill and harsh, trading on the hysteria of men and women confronted with the lies they’ve been forced to live, the stories they need to tell about themselves. It makes us think about those things too, and we may find our hands making fists as if to ward it off.